America’s Crumbling Air Infrastructure

America’s Air Infrastructure was once the envy in the world

When discussing aviation  in a historical context, it is difficult to deny the influence and importance of the United States in the development of commercial aviation. From the time of the Wright Brothers first flight to the first solo Atlantic crossing by Charles Lindbergh, the pace of innovations made by the United States created the first standards for both pilots and eventually airlines that we recognize as modern aviation today. The development of commercial aviation sprang from the profitability of private pilots carrying mail for the US Post Office, which then led to passenger service between important cities. Airports and the associated infrastructure grew and changed to meet the needs of the expanding field of commercial aviation. For many years the US air infrastructure was the envy of the rest of the world, but in the last twenty years, the US has begun to lose its place as the airports in the US have started to age.

What happened to our Infrastructure?

For many years following World War II, US commercial airlines were strictly regulated by the government and this made air travel very expensive. By 1975, the US finally decided to deregulate the airlines which resulted in much lower ticket prices for passengers, but also made the industry itself much more volatile financially. As a result, airlines tried to minimize operating costs in every conceivable way, while at the same time, government levied more taxes on every ticket in an attempt to maintain the infrastructure necessary to keep the system running efficiently. This has predictably led to the current state of aviation where forty percent of the fare price for a ticket is taxes, where the airlines’ themselves have the smallest profit margin (3%) and the airports’ themselves must beg to keep the tax money allotted for improvements, but even the amount of facilities fees and other taxes are inadequate to keep up with the costs.

Newark International Airport, an example of Americ's crumbling infrastructure
Newark International Airport

As recent as 2013, the infrastructure of the US air transport system has been rated as D overall.1 The low grade is largely due to the facilities themselves, and critically, the aging and inefficient air traffic control system. For every successful, new, and well-designed airport, such as Denver International Airport (DEN), there are two dilapidated poorly designed airports in need of major renovation or replacement like NY Laguardia (LGA) or Newark Liberty Airport (EWR). Both the latter airports have horrible reputations among the flying public and in the Air industry. Even airports that have been recently renovated like Buffalo Niagara International Airport (BUF) which had the entire terminal rebuilt in 1997 and was expanded in 2001, are limited not by gate space but by the number and length of their runways. As was the case with the recent new runway built at Boston-Logan International Airport (BOS) in 2006, the original plan was submitted in 1973 but was continually delayed by legal wrangling. It is nearly impossible to get approval and funding for airport expansions, even though the number of air passengers increases every year. In fact, it has been estimated that the infrastructure shortfall for funding for all commercial airports is about two billion dollars annually between 2002 and 2020 and during this time (up to 2013) Congress has actually cut funding for the Airport Improvement Program.2 Some of the nation’s busiest airports are not only horribly out of date, they are confusing, unattractive, and inefficient. It seems almost embarrassing that a country like Singapore, with far less wealth than the United States, has a more modern and better run airport in Kuala Lumpur than the US has in many of its largest cities.

One of the key areas of concern relating to airport infrastructure is the air traffic control system used in the US. According to Gary Kelly of CNN Money, the US is basically using 1950s technology in its air traffic control systems and these outdated systems are not only less safe than satellite-based systems, but they are far less efficient.3 The advantages of satellite-based systems are they are more precise and use airspace more effectively by charting routes more directly and by spacing planes more accurately. The result would be less flight delays, and better fuel consumption. The Federal Aviation Administration has a plan called NextGen, that is supposed to change over the to the newer technology, but the implementation has taken longer than expected and despite the fact the program was instituted in 2003, it has yet to be completed and is likely not to be completed before 2025.4

America’s Infrastructure needs an overhaul

It is a simple fact that improving the air infrastructure in the US would not only benefit the airlines and the flying public, it would provide many jobs and increase investment in other areas of the economy. For too many years, the federal and state governments have been complacent, and in many cases neglectful of heeding the importance of a properly funded and maintained air infrastructure; now many years later, the chickens have come home to roost and the costs have ballooned tremendously. If these deficiencies are not corrected, it could eventually affect the entire air industry and severely impact tourism as well as general airline safety.

1.Aging Infrastructure (October 2014), XL Group Insurance, Construction Insider, by Shannon Lawless and Bob Storey

3., We need 21st Century Air Traffic Control, Gary Kelly, April 27, 2011.

4. Aging Infrastructure (October 2014).